Thursday, June 4, 2009

Book Review: Longitude

Wow did I enjoy this little gem of a book. A friend loaned it to me *months* ago (sorry Pete!) but it got lost in a pile of books somewhere and I only found it recently and got to it. Once started I tore through it pretty quick.

It is the story of the Longitude prize, the sixteenth century equivalent of the X-Prize, a handsome award offered by the British government to whomever could solve the problem of longitudinal location for purposes of sea navigation. For years people were able to calculate their latitude by comparing the angle of the north star to the horizon, but latitude – figuring out their east-west position on the globe - was a far harder problem, and people at sea that couldn’t calculate their location tended to also to do things like run into rocks and cease floating.
Specifically, Longitude is the story of John Harrison, a self-taught clockmaker that devo
ted his life – or at least 31 years of it, to the building of 4 clocks, the fourth of which would eventually win this prize, conquering the astronomers, changing the state of the art of chronometer making. In solving the problem, Harrison changed the ability of the British Navy to navigate the globe, and in doing so, its no exaggeration to say that he changed the course of history.

Despite this, it took him years to get the acknowledgement, as the book details the many years his efforts were thwarted for reasons of politics and greed.

Those looking for good business analogies will find a good metaphor for resistance to innovative approaches in the face of an assumed/established direction. (The clockmakers were regarded as 'mechanics' and the whole practice as folly by many of the astronomers, who beleived that like the north star's use for latitude, the answer lay in the clockwork of the heavens.

Amongst the coolest things I learned in this book is that of the 4 clocks he built, all four of which are located in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England, three of them are still running today. Quietly ticking away, tended to only with a daily winding and occasional cleaning, almost 300 years after their construction. How awesome is that!? That museum is now on my list of must-see places.


Raph said...

I liked that book so much when I read it years ago that I wrote a song about it:

Steve Lacey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

The museum is very cool.

Btw - the TV miniseries based on the book is well worth watching:

Mark DeLoura said...

Ohhhh thanks for the pointer Kim! MB and I visited the museum on our last trip to the UK and the story of those clocks is even fascinating there. I found myself wishing to learn more about it - sounds like perhaps this book is the right place!